Elite Perceptions of the US

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The US and Russia should become partners, not adversaries


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Europe needs the US - but why? After the Second World War the US helped Europe not only to survive but to recover and become one of the most influential regions in the postwar political and economic environment. The Europeans did what they could to encourage the US to cooperate on security as they realized that without an American presence in Europe they would not be able to counterbalance Soviet communism. The US also remained supportive of the European integration project despite knowing that they were ultimately supporting a key competitor. The spread of Euro-Atlantic values and democratic development was always the top priority for the US.

My first visit to the US was in 1995. It became clear to me that this is a country with a sophisticated political and economic system and the American people generally believe - naively some would argue - that their mission in the world is to spread democracy and help people around the world to organize their lives according to American standards and values.

Unfortunately, many Russians have a negative view of the US in terms of politics, as they have a hard time accepting the dominant role of the US within the global system. However, Russians generally like Americans as they have a number of similarities, such as a strong moral conviction, the readiness to help others, and the self-consciousness that comes with belonging to a great power. It is worth mentioning that after the collapse of the communist system many Russians loved both America and Americans. Perceptions began to shift following NATO’s air strikes against the Milosevic regime, and continued to deteriorate following the Iraq war, the Arab Spring and Libya in particular, the war in Syria, and finally the crisis in Ukraine.

The US and Russia should become partners, not adversaries. This is in the interest of both countries as well as in the interest of reasonable people everywhere

Anti-American narrative is strong in Russia as official propaganda tends to blame the US State Department for developments perceived by Russian elites and Russian people as anti-Russian - while anti-American stereotypes, deeply rooted in the national psychology, are exploited by politicians, political technologists and the media. However, US decision-makers and the American public in general should realize their policy of spreading democracy is perceived in many countries, even among their allies, as a US tendency for dominance.

The US-Russia relationship is now caught in a deadlock following the crisis in Ukraine, with neither side willing to compromise. However, we do face common threats and risks. We must focus on the necessity of a fruitful relationship between two key actors in the international arena. While the economic power of Russia is not comparable with that of the US, both hold great nuclear potential and both have great regional influence. The US and Russia should become partners, not adversaries. This is in the interest of both countries as well as in the interest of reasonable people everywhere.

Fortunately, there is not one common view of the United States in Russia. The dominant group is the “national-conservatives”, or the so-called patriots, who prefer a policy of confrontation with the US. This group perceives the US as an enemy of the Russian Federation, as a pole of dominance with the intention to humiliate Russia, to reduce its international influence in general and in post-Soviet states in particular. There are also numerous liberal groups who understand that Russia should cooperate with the US and even shape the paradigm of strategic partnership, otherwise Russia has no chance of modernizing its economy and of responding to new security threats. The problem is that those groups are now so marginalized that they can’t influence the decision-making process.

Among those with the greatest impact on perceptions of the US in Russia are the Russian president and the so-called siloviki around him, the representatives of state corporations or state monopolies focused on cooperation with the BRICS countries and Iran, Venezuela and Argentina, and those who try to formulate a foreign policy to counterbalance, in some way, US global influence. As for the Russian parliament (both chambers), it is not an independent political body, which is why its representatives so enthusiastically repeat the messages emanating from the Kremlin. After the so-called Khodorkovsky case, representatives of the business community do not dare to openly contradict the official line from the Kremlin and therefore can’t influence the image of the US. The anti-American narrative is extremely strong in Russian media, especially among TV networks who continue to spread anti-American propaganda. Academics and internet users generally try to counterbalance this by filtering information and shape their own view of the US.